Dedicated by Goldee Seidman, in honor of David Itzchak Mintz

Essay Chayei Sarah
What Comes First: Love or Marriage?
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: The Morning, Dusk, and Night of Judaism

Isaac and Rebecca

The first act of marriage described in the Torah is the one between Isaac and Rebecca, in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah. It is also the first time the Torah depicts the love between a man and a woman. “And Isaac took Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her.”[1]

In the beginning of Genesis, after creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, G-d says:[2] “Therefore man should leave his father and mother and cleave (v’davak) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Yet this implies primarily a physical relationship, as the verse concludes, “they shall become one flesh.” Love, on the other hand, is an intense emotional bond. It is mentioned for the first time first not by Adam and Eve, not by Abraham and Sarah, but by Isaac and Rebecca.

To be sure, Abraham and Sarah enjoyed a profoundly loving relationship. Married for many decades without children, they trailblazed together a new trail in history. They heeded the voice of G-d to leave behind their families and chart a new path to change the world. Sarah risked her life twice for Abraham when she maintained she was his sister, not his wife. Abraham refused to cohabit with her maid Hagar, but after she insisted that he does, “Abraham heeded the voice of Sarai.”[3] Abraham listened to Sarah’s advice to expel Ishmael from their home, even when he personally disagreed.[4] After Sarah’s death one senses the depth of Abraham’s grief and his intricate negotiations to grant his wife her final honor by burying her in the cave where he too would one day be interred.

Yet the Torah’s first usage of the term love between spouses is reserved for Isaac and Rebecca: “And Isaac took Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her.”[5]

What is unique about their marriage? And why is this sort of description never repeated in the Torah?

Jacob loves Rachel, the Torah tells us.[6] But that’s before he married her: “And Jacob Loved Rachel, and he said [to her father]: “I will work for you for seven years for your youngest daughter Rachel.” With Jacob and Rachel, the love precedes the marriage. With Isaac and Rebecca, the love follows the marriage. Why the difference?

No Friction

What is more, with our other patriarchs and matriarchs we observe moments of tension (of course relative to their lofty and sacred stature). Sarah tells Abraham, “I am angry at you.”[7] Rachel too complains to Jacob about her childlessness; “and Jacob became angry at Rachel, saying, ‘Am I in the place of G-d?”[8]

In contrast, between Isaac and Rebecca, no friction is ever recorded.

This was not because they never disagreed. To the contrary, the Torah states, that Rebecca loved Jacob, while Isaac loved Essay. While Isaac wishes to bless Esau, Rebecca instructs Jacob to dress up like his brother and obtain the blessings for himself.[9] That could have easily resulted in a quarrel—but it did not.

Dawn and Darkness

The sages in the Talmud present a fascinating tradition about the three daily prayers in Judaism.[10] Abraham instituted the morning prayer, shacharis; Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer—mincha; and Jacob initiated the evening prayer, maariv.[11]

The Talmud derives this from the biblical verses. But what is the thematic connection between our three forefathers and these particular prayers? And why do we have three daily prayers? (Mohammed instituted five daily prayers for Muslims, mimicking our Yom Kippur model; yet on a daily basis we have three.)

Morning brings with it a fresh and exhilarating energy. As a new day emerges, we have this sense (at least till we check our phone) that new possibilities are beaconing upon us. As the first rays of light cast their glow on our horizon, a new dawn breaks our imagination as well. Morning brings with it new frontiers to conquer and fresh glimmers of hope.[12] One of the great spiritual masters, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) writes, that when a person awakes, he or she feels instinctively a sense of happiness and promise.[13] We press the restart button.

This is the story of Abraham. He embodied the morning of Judaism, bringing the dawn of a new era to earth. He opened humanity to a new reality, a new vision. He heralded a novel, message. The world is not a hopeless jungle; it is a Divine palace. We are not an insignificant speck of dust on the surface of infinity; we matter. Humanity is not a helpless folk subjected to the whims of competing gods, but part of a single narrative, united in the image of a moral and loving Creator. Abraham taught that there was purpose in history and meaning in life.

Who was Abraham? “Abraham woke up early in the morning to the place where he stood previously,” the Torah states.[14] Then again, when he is instructed to bring his son to Mt. Moriah, “Abraham woke up in the morning.” The Torah rarely presents the details of daily life, unless they convey an important theme. Following a long and dark night, Abraham ushers in the morning for civilization.[15] Abraham instituted the morning (shacharis) prayer, topping into the unique spiritual energy of daybreak, when you stretch out your arms and embrace the new day.

Jacob, in contrast, embodies the night of Judaism. The kingdom of night is full of mystique, solitude, darkness, drama and romance. Jacob’s life is raddled with darkness, uncertainty, loneliness, struggle and trauma, fraught with drama and mystery. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:[16] “Why do you say, O Jacob, why declare, O Israel, ‘My way is hid from the Lord, my cause is ignored by my G-d’”?

No personality in the Torah is so connected with night as Jacob. In middle of the night, the Torah relates, “Jacob remained alone, and a man fought with him till dawn broke.”[17] Jacob tells his father-in-law Laban: “Twenty years I have been with you… scorching heat ravaged me by day, and frost by night; sleep eluded my eyes.”[18] Jacob, says the Torah, “came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.”[19] He then dreams of a “ladder standing on the ground, but its top reaches heaven.”[20]

Jacob taught the Jewish people and the world how to encounter the Divine during the turbulence and obscurity of night. “And Jacob woke up from his sleep and he said, ‘Indeed! G-s is present in this space, even if I did not know it.’”[21] Jacob feels the presence of G-d even in a space of darkness and adversity, even if his brain can’t always figure out how. Jacob created the evening prayer—the connection to G-d amidst the mystery and drama of nightfall. As the sun set again and yet again in his life, he traveled internally to discover the source of light from within.

The Monotony of Afternoons

How about the vibe of afternoon? Smack in the middle of a long and arduous day, lacking the freshness of morning and the mystery of evening, afternoons are often characterized by monotony. The day in the office is dragging on, and I am drained. If I am lucky enough to be a house mom or dad, afternoon comes with its own stress: The children are returning from school, dinner is not made, the house is a mess, and I am in a bad mood; it’s been a long day.

What is the energy that beacons to us during those dull afternoons? What is the spiritual heartbeat of the flat hours in the day, when I’m just waiting to go home?

It is the story of Isaac.

Isaac’s life was—superficially speaking—not as colorful as his father’s or son’s life. Unlike his father Abraham he did not wage and win wars, nor did he did not travel extensively and change the vocabulary of humanity.[22] He was never a world celebrity, titled by the Hittites as “a prince of G-d.”[23] He was not a founder of a new religion, or the progenitor of a new nation. He was not the “revolutionary” that his father was.

Nor did his life contain the drama of his son Jacob. Isaac did not flee his brother’s wrath; he did not fight in middle of the night; he did not fall in love with Rachel, and then experience deceit; he did not lose his son to a wild animal only to discover 22 years later that his beloved child became the Prime Minister of the superpower of the time. He did not relocate his entire family to a new country at an old ripe age.

Isaac lived in one location, and he never left it. His was more of a simple life. The only thing the Torah really tells us about his vocation is that he grew grain and dug many a well.[24] Isaac represents the long[25] and seemingly tedious “afternoon” of Jewish history. 

Therein lies his singular uniqueness.

Isaac’s life might lack the grandeur, excitement, challenge and mystique of Abraham and Jacob, yet he embodies the essence and foundation of Judaism: The daily consistent and unwavering commitment to G-d and His work. Abraham was a revolutionary; he cast a new light on the world, but it was Isaac who created the vessels to contain and internalize the light. Isaac dug the wells of Judaism: he went deeply into himself and the world around him and revealed the subterranean living wellsprings of faith and commitment, ensuring that the flow never ceases. Isaac’s relative silence in the boog of Genesis ought not to be confused with passivity; it was rather a silence that comes with internalization. Isaac knew that revolutions can last for a few decades, but if you do not create solid containers for the energy (represented by the wells in the ground) the energy will fade away.

Isaac at one point of his life lay on an altar, ready to become an offering for G-d. This became the hall mark of his life: He embodied absolute dedication and resilience, consistent, unwavering, and unbending.

Isaac is the founder of the afternoon prayer, the “mincha” of Judaism. “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at dusk,” the Torah states in this week’s portion.[26] Isaac tapped into the spiritual energy of the “boring afternoons”, showing us that a relationship with G-d does not consist only of the spontaneous exuberant morning inspiration, or of the drama and romance of night. A relationship with G-d is expressed even more profoundly in the daily commitment and sacrifices we make for truth, love, goodness, and holiness. He bequeathed us with the internal resilience and strength to bring G-d into the dull and tedious journeys of life.

It is afternoon in your office. You need to respond to dozens of emails, catch the bank, return many a call, and still field a few annoying appointments. But you stand up to daven “mincha,” to connect with G-d. You are busy, stressed, and tired; yet you leave everything behind, and you take time out and try to break out of the routine to focus on truth, on G-d, on eternity. Here is where the power of Isaac lay, the still voice of dedication that never falters.[27]

A Tale of Three Marriages

Marriage, too, has three components: the morning, the night—and the period of afternoon and dusk.

When we meet our soulmate, a new dawn overwhelms our heart’s horizon. We are overtaken by the newness and freshness of the experience. We are excited, inspired, full of hope of what our joined future might look like. This is the “Abraham” of marriage, the morning—shacharis— of a relationship.

Marriage also has those special moments of moonlight mystery and drama. The passion and electricity that comes from the unknown, from discovering the untold layers of depth in our spouse’s soul; the special awareness that is born from dealing with darkness and uncertainty. This is the “Jacob” element of marriage, the evening—”maariv”—of a relationship.

But then there is the “mincha” of marriage—the simple, unromantic, non-dramatic, commitment of two people to each other, during the boring and flat days of life. Two souls holding hands together through the vicissitudes of life, in difficult times, in serene times, in monotonous moments and in thrilling moments. It is the loyalty and trust built over years of supporting each other.

This creates a unique type of love. There is the love born out of thrill, drama, and exhilaration. This is the love that precedes marriage. You fall in love with your new partner, you are swept off your feet by the sunrise in your life. But there is another type of love that is born out of the daily commitment and dedication to each other. This love can never be experienced before marriage, only afterward.

This was Isaac’s love. It’s the “mincha” love, the one that comes from an ongoing, consistent bond in the daily grind of life. It is why the Torah states: “And Isaac took Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her.” First Isaac marries her, and only then does he come to love her.

A Tale of Two Loves

What is the difference between the two loves?

In the first love, born out of the ecstasy of a new passionate relationship, the shorter we are married, the more the love; the longer we are married, the more difficult to love. As the thrill wanes, boredom sets in, and we sometimes grow disinterested. In the latter Isaac-type love, it is the reverse: the longer we are married, the deeper we grow in love. We don’t fall in love; we climb in love. The love becomes like a deep well, discovered in the depths of the earth, and its life sustaining waters never cease to flow.

The first marriage described in Torah is the one of Isaac and Rebecca, in order to teach us one of the most important principles in marriage: Passion and romance are awesome, but as our circumstances change, they can fade away. A marriage must be built on good judgment, sound reason, an appreciation of the inner, enduring qualities and values of the other person, and it must possess the enduring commitment of a couple to each other, day-in day-out, in a bond of steadfast and simple faithfulness and trust. 

Parenthetically, this is the reason Jewish law insists on no physical relations before marriage. This ensures that the couple decides to get married not based on physical attraction alone, because this may change with time, but with an appreciation of the character traits, inner personality and values of the other person, for these will not change. Often, when men or women get physically involved, they become intoxicated by the pleasure and their blind spots cause them to overlook crucial information which might come to the surface a few years down the line and sadly sever the connection.

Our culture knows, perhaps, how to pray “shacharis” and “maariv.” We desperately need the discover the enduring secret of “mincha.”

[1] Genesis 24:67

[2] Ibid. 2:24

[3] Genesis 16:2

[4] Genesis chapter 21

[5] Genesis 24:67

[6] Ibid. 29:18

[7] Ibid. 16:5

[8] Ibid. 30:2

[9] Ibid. 25:28, and chapter 27.

[10] Berachot 26b

[11] See Talmud ibid. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Chanina said: The prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices... It has been taught in accordance with Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina: Avraham instituted the morning prayer, as it says, "Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood." Yitzchak instituted the afternoon prayer, as it says, "Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at dusk." Yaakov instituted the evening prayer, as it says, "He encountered [vayifga] the place," and "pegiah" means prayer.

Rabbi Yitzchak Zaler, in his commentary Minchas Yitzchak to the Talmud ibid. adds a nice hint in their names: The second letter of our three forefathers are ב' (אברהם), 'צ' (יצחק), and ע' (יעקב), alluding to the Hebrew terms: "בוקר" (morning), "צהריים" (afternoon), and "ערב" (evening). These correspond to the time of day at that which each one instituted a different prayer.

[12] See Beis Yosef Orach Chaim Chapter 4: A man upon awakening in the morning is like a new creature, as it is written: "The souls are new every morning." (Lamentations 3:23). Cf. Likkutei Torah Behaaloscha Maamar Miksha.

[13] Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haktzarim p. 553.

[14] Genesis 19: 27

[15] See Ethics of the Fathers ch. 5

[16] 40:27

[17] Genesis 32:24

[18] Ibid. 31:38;40

[19] Gen 28:11

[20] Ibid. 12

[21] Genesis 28:16

[22] See Rambam Laws of Avodah Zarah chapter 1. Rashi Genesis 24:7. Introduction of Meiri to Pirkei Avos.

[23] Genesis 23:6

[24] Genesis chapter 26

[25] He also lives longer than his father and child: 180, not 175 or 147.

[26] Ibid. 24:63

[27] See Talmud Berachos 6b: One should always be careful to pray the Mincha prayer for Elijah was only answered (when he prayed for a fire to come down and consume his sacrifice) during the Mincha prayer. Rabbi Moshe ibn Machir, in Seder Hayom, Page 32, explains: The prayer of Mincha deserves to be answered because it is a time that everyone is busy in their work and carried away with their doings and needs. Hence, when during such a time one instead runs after the needs of G-d and prays and beseeches before the Master of the world—thus recognizing his Master's greatness, while seeing himself only as a dedicated servant devoted to His service—it is appropriate to recognize this humble man who is careful with the word of G-d whom it is fit to look at him.

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Class Summary:
The first act of marriage recorded in the Torah is the one between Isaac and Rebecca. It is also the first time the Torah tells of the love between a man and a woman. “And Isaac took Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her.” Unlike the others loves in the Bible, this one happens only after their marriage.

What is the meaning in all of this?

Talmud states that Abraham instituted shacharis, the morning prayer; Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer, mincha; and Jacob instituted the evening prayer, maariv. Why do we pray in Judaism three times a day? The three prayers capture the three dimensions of Jewish existence, three modes of our relationship with life and with G-d. They also reflect three different types of marriages. What our culture needs most today is the “mincha” marriage, the secret of Isaac.